Picture a lone figure out on the cliffs. It’s still dark and he is worried he might misstep—badly—you could fall off the edge out here and no one would know. Below is the sea, but also rocks and a cove that gets washed by the tide. It’s forty, fifty feet down. Fall and you’re dead. So he’s careful. Above him is a parchment of clouds, and beyond that, truly, the heavens. It’s cold, and as the sun starts to rise, so does the breeze…
I caught this morning morning’s minion,
At least that’s the picture I’m drawing: A black cassock against a black sky. Father Hopkins out on a precipice seeing God in a falcon’s flight
—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
It’s always been one of my favorite poems, The Windhover. Subtitled: To Christ our Lord. And it seems fair to examine the vocabulary of a poem—a minion in the kingdom of daylight’s dauphin. O my chevalier!—though I guess it’s not surprising to find European heraldry in the way people talk about a god that grew up in the European middle ages. After all, the bumper sticker proclaims ‘Jesus is Lord’, not ‘Jesus is Vice-President’.
So, hovering on the edge of the sun, sea, clouds and sky—in the king-dom of daylight’s dauphin—is a bird, a falcon drawn by the dawn and the icy sea, a falcon who is supported by—of all things—the atmosphere.
…in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air
Day is in sharp contrast to night, one of the simplest of oppositions known to man, at least until the invention of the light bulb. “It’s always night, or else we wouldn’t need light.”—as Thelonious Monk states the case (see the superscription to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day). Look up ‘dauphin’ and you’ll find a direct link to the eldest son of the king of France, a prince, waiting in the wings to take over the throne, so the dawn and the ensuing daylight must be the kingdom of Christ, the savior of mankind, the one who is next in line to that sun rising amidst a bust of rays and cloud-reflected light: the sunrise is beautiful, isn’t it? Of course, the bird is a mere minion in the picture, with Father Hopkins and the rest of mankind in the middle of the Great Chain of Being—a worldview which we probably think of today as being ‘poetic’, which can be a polite way of saying ‘not true’. Night is against the day.
Dawn for Gerard Manley Hopkins was on July 28, 1844 and night happened on June 8 1889—44 years of day—so he’s an almost exact contemporary of Fredrick Nietzsche and Alfred, Lord Tennyson—though Tennyson got 83 years of daylight. Dawn for his poetry can be found in the stormy wreck of the SS Deutschland, a steamer that ran aground in a winter’s storm and claimed, amongst others, five nuns who drowned in the passenger saloon, crying out (from varying eyewitness accounts) Mein Gott! Mach es schnell mit uns! Give us our death quickly and O Christ, come quickly. This was in 1875. The ship’s stewardess could look down through the skylight and see the wimpled, drowned bodies sloshing around in the cabin. As Hopkins described the storm it was the wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow…and so the sky keeps, for the infinite air is unkind…
Unkind, indeed. This infinite air battered the ship for twenty-four hours, killing those who did not have the strength to hang on in the rigging. This is also the problem of evil made real, and this sort of thing fires the imagination in those who pray to a god—especially to a god who’s supposed to be good—in fact, the epitome of good, all-good, all beneficent, and all powerful—the omniscient guy in the sky. For Tennyson it was a fatal brain hemorrhage to his friend Arthur Hallam that put him in alarm; for Hopkins it was a ship ferrying persecuted nuns to a new life in America foundering in a wall of waves. This should be a constitutive case—okay, if there is such a thing, a negative constitutive case—a good, just god cannot exist who allows such things to happen. And this should be the end of the story. We’re in the 19th century, after all, and the winds of atheism were blowing: Marx had his suspicions that religion might be akin to opium; Darwin’s ideas—well documented ideas—offered an alternative to god-created diversity; Nietzsche was playing with the notion that we had killed God. Reasonable people were formulating perspectives that made do without a leap of faith. But Tennyson wrote In Memorandum: AHH and Hopkins wrote The Wreck of the Deutschland, poems that might well qualify as theodicies, as attempts to bring these divine offences into the proper perspective—and not to reject the whole shebang. Both poems, though, are better thought of as love poems. To God.
So the story continues: Thou mastering me/ God! …and does thou touch me afresh? / Once again I feel thy finger and find thee—so the voice in the opening stanza. One could wonder—Who is speaking here? Has the poem taken the voice of (one of) the dead nuns? And which one? The one crying out in (almost) sexual ecstasy? And from where is this voice speaking? Is she dead already?—but let’s make it our project to simply underscore the thoughts and passions of a lover. I kiss my hand/ To the stars, lovely-asunder/ Starlight, wafting him out of it…
Valentine’s Day is near; this would make a lovely card.
The issue may not be the relationship between a good god and an evil world; the issue may be between poetry and philosophy. It’s an old quarrel, and one not answered at all if you think The Wreck of the Deutschland is illustrating a philosophical conundrum. Better to say it’s a voice speaking: think Winnie buried up to her neck in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, rather than, say, Leibnitz deciding that this is the best of all possible worlds; think poetry—the force majeure of poetry—and philosophy—the force majeure of philosophy—as lying fallow, the force majeure put out to pasture.
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there’s none; no no no there’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair
Despair, despair, despair.
We’re back on the cliffs with Father Hopkins. His poems participate in an everyday crisis of understanding and mystery, of fear, exultation, emptiness and plenitude. The beauty of the words, perhaps against his best intentions, limns the darkness. It’s phony that subtitle to The Wreck of the Deutschland: To the happy memory of five Franciscan nuns… You don’t have to decide for us if it’s a happy memory, Gerard. We do get the picture: the mind with its metaphysics completing, at least trying to complete, a fracture, a fissured existence. Stanley Cavell in his book on Shakespeare, Disowning Knowledge, writes: The plays…form respective interpretations of skepticism as they yield to interpretation by skepticism. Shakespeare was a herald to the great age of skepticism—Montaigne and Descartes and that crowd—but skepticism is not limited to the 16th and 17th centuries and perhaps its biggest jousting partner throughout the years has been religion. Gerard Hopkins and his poetry do yield to interpretations by skepticism—philosophy, may the force be with you—and they yield to presentations of religious faith and by what Santayana called animal faith: our belief in ourselves and in the world.
Continuing his thought, Stanley Cavell quotes from an earlier book of his, The Claim of Reason:
The consequent implication that there is between human existence and the existence of the world a standing possibility of death-dealing passion, of a yearning at once unappeasable and unsatisfiable, as for an impossible exclusiveness or completeness, is an implication that harks back, to my mind, to my late suggestion of the possibility of falling in love with the world.
So, maybe Father Hopkins is right to be out on the cliffs with his mannered poems, his medieval musings, his inscape and instress: sheer plod makes plough down sillion/ Shine, and the blue-bleak embers…
I hope the birds cawing and soaring in the winds remind him of the nuns, however, crying and soaring in the infinite air. The achieve of, the mastery of the thing.